Skip to content

The iOS App Store’s paid apps lottery game

In case you missed it, Apple is promoting "pay once" games in the iTunes App Store:

I think it's amazing that Apple is highlighting pay-once games; anything that helps focus attention away from the freemium model is great in my eyes. I hope this is a regular feature and kept up to date.

Looking at just the apps I can see on the screen without scrolling, there are about a dozen I think I'd like—for a total cost of around $85 or so. But that's where I reach the freeze point: Instead of sending Apple my $85 and trying out a bunch of cool games, I do nothing. That's because if I decide to buy these games, I might as well spend the money on lottery tickets.

You 'win' the iOS lottery if you get a great game for your money. You 'lose' the iOS lottery when you wind up purchasing a steaming pile of donkey dung of a game. Sorry, you lost this time, but please play again soon!

The current state of the App Store, where freemium titles are the most-downloaded and generate the most revenue, is completely Apple's fault. When they launched the App Store, they made two policy decisions that set our current situation in motion:

  1. No demos.
  2. No refunds.

About a year after the store opened, they made another crucial change: free apps could now have in-app purchases.

The way I see it, the move to allow in-app purchases in free apps was a direct result of not allowing demos or refunds. Without a demo, and with no way to get your money back, buying a paid app was a risky proposition…just like buying a lottery ticket! So they let developers give their apps away (no risk to download), with the ability to get paid via in-app purchases.

Fast forward a few years, and we've reached [to continue reading, please purchase a Gold Coin Megapack for just $19.99] the point of utter ridiculousness.

Without a demo or a refund opportunity, I'm unlikely to take a blind bet on something being worth my money—yes, even something as cheap as a dollar or two (mostly because I don't want to reward a developer for releasing a crappy product). It's more than a bit insane that you can purchase a $6,500 Mac Pro and return it up to two weeks later, but you can't return a $0.99 game you bought and don't like.

Apple would probably say that there are resources available to make an informed purchasing decision, so refunds and demos aren't necessary. For example, they might mention user reviews, videos, and vendor web sites that can provide a good overview of what you're going to get. Let's consider each of those data sources…

User reviews: Forget about it, they're useless. At least the ones on the App Store itself are useless. Many apps use paid shills to write reviews (and download apps, to place them on best selling charts), so it's impossible to trust much of anything you read on the store.

Even if you find one that you don't suspect is a paid review, it may not be all that useful. For example:

Or the one I saw last night that said "Great game, but it always crashes a few minutes into my game." The reviewer then gave the app four stars! So do I take a chance and buy, hoping it doesn't crash on my machine?

Finally, there are a ton of games (and apps in general) that have no reviews. They may be excellent games…but would you be the first buyer? Maybe the game is awful and nobody even wants to leave a review? Who knows.

So no, reviews are not really something I rely on when purchasing an iOS app.

Videos: Apple now allows developers to include App Previews, short videos demonstrating gameplay. There are a couple problems with using these as before-you-buy information sources. First, they're created by the developer, so they're only going to show the best parts of the game. Second, they're short—no more than 30 seconds long. Finally, they only play on iOS devices!. So if you're shopping from your Mac, you won't even be able to see the videos. So much for videos.

Developer web sites: In theory, this might be the best source of information, as you may be able to find longer videos, fuller descriptions of the app, and perhaps a support forum where you can see feedback from actual users, instead of paid shills.

If you're interested in a title from a big-name company, you'll probably find a nice web site with all the above (and more). But most iOS apps are from smaller developers, and Apple doesn't even require them to list a web site in their App Store listing.

Because there are no refunds, no demos, and very few sources of reliable good information about apps (I primarily rely on friends and my Twitter stream for recommendations), paying money for an app really is a lottery.

Fixing the problem

Apple could easily fix this problem: allow demos, and/or allow unlimited (or limited with a really high limit) refunds for the stated reason of "app did not meet my expectations." One or the other would be enough to get me to try more paid apps; both would lead to me downloading and purchasing many more apps than I do at present.

But I don't think we'll see Apple do either of these things—both solutions would probably drive down App Store revenue, even though in the long run, these changes would help improve the quality of the apps in the store, and hopefully push towards an end of the freemium era.

In addition, many developers won't want to see the changes either. For example, Candy Crush Saga raked in over $1.3 billion in 2014. I'm certain they don't want to see a move towards a "pay once" model; it would decimate their revenue.

So I guess we'll just need to keep playing the lottery game with our App Store purchases. And I don't like playing the lottery, because the odds of winning aren't very good. If you want me to play more often, Apple, then give me more chances to 'win' your lottery.